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Prof. Dr. Malte Zimmermann
Institut für Linguistik
Universität Potsdam
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24-25
D-14476 Potsdam

Tel.: +49-(0)331-977-2319
Fax: +49-(0)331-977-2087

Email to: mazimmer_at_

About Me

    I am professor of semantics and grammar theory at the Linguistic Department of Potsdam University. I am interested in the language capacity of human beings in general, and in the relation of linguistic form and meaning, aka semantics, in particular. Among many other things, I am interested in quantification, tense, question semantics, discourse particles, and information structure, ... sometimes I even teach discourse structure (together with my colleague Tatjana Scheffler) ...
    Me and the members of my Potsdam semantics group (Mira Grubic, Joseph DeVeaughGeiss, Carla Bombi, ..) are also extremely interested in semantically under-researched languages of West Africa (Chadic, Kwa, Grasfield Bantu) which involves field research in Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, ... and which is less adventurous than you would think ...
    Together with my dear colleague Edgar Onea (Graz), I currently direct the experimental research project ExQ on the (non-)exhaustive interpretation of embedded questions across European (English, German, Hungarian, Romanian) and Non-European (Hausa, Akan) languages. This project is funded by the DFG as part of the priority program SPP 1727 on experimental pragmatics.
    In addition, I am co-PIing an SFB-project on the Limits of Variability in Interpretation, together with Alexander Koller (Universität des Saarlands).
    I am also a faculty member of the African Linguistics School (ALS), which takes place biannually in different West African countries.

    Apart from linguistics, I enjoy being and travelling with my family, including interesting outdoor adventures such as hiking, cycling, and canooing. Last but not least, I am fostering an undying love for the football team of FC St Pauli, who may not always be great - but they are trying!

Recent and not so recent talks

  • Find Construction Analyze: Making Sense of Serial Verb Constructions in Igbo; Joint presentation with Mary Amaechi, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt/Main, 8 May 2018; The talk presents the results of a systematic event-semantic investigation of two types of serial verb constructions in Igbo. One central finding is that SVCs with and without object sharing come with a different syntax and corresponding differences in their event semantic, following Stewart (1998). The central theoretical claim is that object sharing SVCs do no compose via the compositional procedure of Event Cumulativity, pace Stewart (1998), but via the process of Event or Situation Extension, well known from the semantics of adverbial quantifiers (von Fintel 1994). In the talk, we also discuss a number of empirial diagnostings for uncovering the event semantics of SVS, which also provide the basis for cross-linguistic comparison with other types of SVCs in Igbo, and, more generally, with SVCs across languages.
  • (Non-) exhaustivity in focus partitioning: A cross-linguistic investigation of exhaustivity in Hungarian focus and clefts; Joint presentation with the members of the ExCl project, 13th International Conference on the Structure of Hungarian, 29-30 June 2017, Budapest; The talk discusses the results of two offline experiments on cleft exhaustivity from a cross-linguistic perspective. Parallel experiments in the Increasing Information Retrieval paradigm were conducted on German, English, French and Hungarian. The results show that German, English and French participants fall into two groups regarding cleft exhausitivity: some interpret clefts as non-exhaustive on a par with plain focus accent, whereas others intepret cleft as exhaustive on a par with exclusive particles. The experimental results adequately reflect the existing controvery in the theoretical litearture, and can only be accounted in a discourse-based PRAGMATIC analysis of cleft exhaustivity. Finally, we show that Hungarian speakers fall into two groups as well regarding the exhaustive interpretation of preverbal syntactic focus, with a stronger bias for exhaustive interpretation. Again, this nicely reflects the often observed special character of Hungarian re: focus exhaustivity, while in principle being amenable to a pragmatic analysis as well.
  • Inverse Scope in German revisited: No, 3/4, or Yes? An experimental study; Joint presentation with Gisbert Fanselow at the 1st Budapest-Lund-Potsdam syntax Workshop, Academy of Sciences, Budapest, June 2016; The talk presents the results of an experimental pilot study, which suggest that inverse scope interpretations may be available in German after all, even in all-given de-accented sentences. We considered sentences with plausible inverse construals (... tatsächlich HAT 'n umgestürzter Baum jede Zufahrt zur Innenstadt blockiert) in comparison to blocked inverse scope from within syntactic islands and filler and control material with wide and narrow scope for the universal quantifier.
  • Cross-linguistic variability (and uniformity) in focus-background partitioning; Academy Colloquium Language Variation in Action, KNAW, Trippenhuis, February 19, 2016
    This invited talk provides an overview of variability and uniformity in focus-background partitioning. Drawing mostly on empirical data gathered in the Potsdam-Berlin-based SFB632 "Information Structure", I discuss various ways in which languages can formally express focus-nackground partitioning. Next to well-known focusing strategies, special attention is paid to so-called 'backgrounding strategies', which can either co-occur with explicit focus marking or else occur in isolation in the absence of explicit focus marking. A background-only marking language is the West Chadic language Ngamo, as described in Mirs Grubic's (2015) PhD dissertation.
  • Salient situations: A semantic reanalysis of RELative marking in Hausa (Chadic); GWIS 3: Under one roof - Sharing a form with focus, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, 25-26 September, 2015
    in this invited talk, I propose a semantic analysis of so-called "relative marking" in Hausa, which has been traditionally analyzed as a semantically vacuous, purely structural reflex of A-bar movement (Tuller 1986). On the alternative semantic account proposed, relative marking on the person-aspect complex has semantic import: REL-marking presupposes the contextual presence of a salient situation constraining the topic situation of the REL-marked clause.
  • Conventional vs Free Association with Focus: Insights from West African and South East Asian Languages; University of Bar Ilan, Tel Aviv, February 3, 2014
    The talk sums up the findings of my SFB project on "Focus interpretation from a cross-linguistic perspective" on focus-sensitive elements in West African (Basa'a, Bura, Ga, Ngamo, Medumba) and Asian (Vietnamese, Ishkashimi) languages. Drawing on these findings, I propose a generalized version of Kay's (1990) analysis of scalar particles like 'even' that can account for the cross-linguistically robust observation that scalar particles can not only associate with foci, but ALSO with contrastive topics.
  • Contrastive Focus and Verb Doubling in Medumba (Grassfields Bantu; Universiteit van Amsterdam, September 20, 2012
    The talk presents joint work with Constantine Kouankem (Yaoundé). We show that focus in Medumba is morphologically marked, and that there is no evidence for syntactic focus licensing. Verb doubling under focus is derived from an incompatibility of the adnominal focus marker 'a' with [+verbal] finite verbs. Instead the a-marker must be realised on an infinitival copy of the verb in a non-verbal environement


  • since 2011 Full Professor of Semantics and Theory of Grammar, Universität Potsdam
  • 2009-2015 Director of Collaborative Research Centre SFB 632 Information Structure
  • 2006 Junior professor of Semantics, Universität Potsdam
  • 2003-2006 Research assistant in project B2 Focus in the Chadic languages, SFB 632 Information Structure, Humboldt University Berlin
  • 2002-2003 Postdoc in graduate program "Sentence Types: Variation and Interpretation", University Frankfurt/Main

Research Grants



    As a full professor at the Linguistic Department of the Universität Potsdam, I regularly teach courses in the department's BSc- and MSc-programmes in linguistics. In addition, I am a faculty member of the African Linguistics School (ALS). I also taught courses at the ESSLLI summer schools of 2009 and 2011 and the GLOW summer school of 2006.

PhD Supervision - completed

    PhD Supervision - in progress

  • Eva Shipova (UP): The interpretation of Russian éto-clefts: Experimental investigations, expected 2021

Actual courses: Winter 2018

  • MM3: Introduction to Formal Syntax and Semantics (co-taught with Gisbert Fanselow)(MSc Ling)
  • SEM-A/AM6: Formal Semantics of African Languages (BSc Ling)
  • SEM-A/AM6: Philosophy of Language and Formal Semantics (BSc Ling)
  • EMG-V: Experimental Methods in Formal Semantics (BSc Ling)
  • SEM-V: Introduction to Formal Semantics II - Variables and Intensional Semantics (BSc Ling)

Previous Courses (selected)